Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Buildings and Ministry, Part IV

This is the last of four posts on this topic (but by no means the last word) growing out of a symposium I attended recently that was hosted by Buildings for Tomorrow/The Episcopal Church Building Fund. (I expect that once they are edited the presentations will be posted here, on the BFNT website. The background for this fourth post can be found here:
Buildings and Ministry: Part I 
Buildings and Ministry: Part II 
Buildings and Ministry: Part III
On Monday, April 28, I arrived in Fort Lauderdale with my bishop and two canon colleagues and thirteen other ordained and lay leaders from our diocese. I had high hopes but not clearly defined expectations. On the inside cover of the Agenda and Worship booklet we received at registration I read these words:
The Episcopal Church Building Fund is dedicated to making BFNT a cutting-edge gathering of people who are ready to move their house of worship forward, to help it thrive and grow. God is doing a new thing...can you not perceive it? Together, let's get ready! We hope your experience here will encourage you to Plant...something, to think about houses of worship and land in new ways, as conduits to enhance relationships in your community. 
That first evening we heard Ron Finley speak about Prospects for a New Tomorrow: View from the Garden. Ron challenged us church people not to have meetings about meetings to consider how we might one day plant something but to go out and plant something. "Just plant some shit," he urged us. We got literal seeds at registration (I took some carrot seeds) to reinforce the point. He talked about the space around many churches and especially the spaces around churches that are in food deserts as places that can transform hearts and minds and put nutritious food in the bellies of those who are hungry. But of course the whole time he spoke I was thinking that he sounded a lot more like Jesus than a theologian or church person. He didn't talk with insider language about theology. Rather, he talked about seeds and growth and the good earth and pruning and beauty. We had much to ponder as we took our rest and called it a day.

Over the next two days we did what Episcopalians do at this sort of thing: we prayed together and we went to workshops and we enjoyed one another's company. Here are the workshops that were offered, with the ones I attended in bold:
The Beauty, Glory, and Joy of Mergers and Closings: An IntroductionProperty Deals in the Old Dominion
Pilgrimage to the Boiler Room
Facing the Facts: Strategically Mapping Canada's ChurchesBishops PanelCompost, Churchyard, Chow
Open Forum on Mergers and ClosingsDitching the Buildings
The Positive Power of Being Strange
Repurposing Your Buildings and Landscapes to Align With Your Mission and Vision
It was all good and there was a lot of food for thought - some of which I've shared indirectly in the first three posts of this series. And other stuff is still percolating and will, I suspect, for a while. While it may emerge in other posts I think four posts on this topic is plenty for now!

This conference came at a great time for me, almost one year into my new work on the bishop's staff. When people hear about closing churches, they tend to think of the Roman Church where very often buildings emerged around ethnic identity. If a Roman Catholic were to do what I did in this first post you would find (at least in this part of the world) that the history of Roman Catholic congregations in places like Worcester followed the patterns of immigration. So there were French-Canadian congregations and Italian congregations and Polish ones and Irish ones and Hispanic ones and so forth. Those congregations served not only as a way of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, but of helping immigrant communities transition to a new place, often as places where the language of the old country could linger on a while as a way to alleviate homesickness.

But the problem for third and fourth generation immigrants is that this mission plan is unsustainable. What happens when an Irish Catholic marries an Italian Catholic? Whose parish becomes home. Of course the past few decades have seen far more radical changes than this of people marrying "outside of the faith." But the point for here is that no one can seriously doubt that there are more Roman Catholic buildings than needed in places like Worcester; they face the same problem we Episcopalians do. The big difference, however, is in our polity. When the Bishop in the Roman tradition wants to close a congregation he can just decide to do that, in the same way that a CEO might close certain branch offices of a company to consolidate things.

It doesn't work that way in my denomination. There is a lot more authority in the pews, and those who serve on vestries are elected by their peers to have these challenging conversations. People like me, who work for the bishop, are there to cajole and prod clergy and wardens to start having these difficult conversations.  I am glad for all of that and glad we have the polity we do. But it takes more time, and more effort, to effect change. Struggling congregations rarely are eager to face the challenges or even sometimes equipped to do so. Emotional attachments like those I've tried to name here trump thoughtful reflection.

But we need to have these conversations. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. Sometimes even people who no longer attend a church building or support it financially still feel invested in the building from an historic or even nostalgic perspective. And when these hard conversations begin, people come out of the woodwork.

It is irresponsible to put our heads in the sand and the fact is that we can no longer afford to do so. I see the way forward as a process that begins with developing deeper relationships and partnerships. Parishes that focus on their mission do some things well, but cannot do everything. I am starting to see in my new work that congregations can and do come together. Recently several congregations shared the liturgy of the Easter Vigil. The Vigil is a beautiful liturgy but it comes in a week jam-packed with worship and in most congregations it is not as full on Saturday night as on Easter morning. So what a great opportunity for collaboration! Some congregations combined Lenten programs and recently the bishop and I joined a group of youth from all the city congregations and beyond at All Saints Church for an overnight. Mission trips for youth and adults from these congregations are also happening.

When these things happen, clergy and lay leaders begin to move out of their "silos" to ask questions about what we can and need to do ourselves and what can we do better together? That takes time of course, and we do not have all the time in the world. But it is work that God has given us to do. And perhaps these seeds will grow into something more. Imposed mergers just don't work. But if two congregations are stronger together than apart, there is a story to be told and some of those have already happened in my diocese. We need to share the good news of these successes.

I leave you, then, with this thought, from Elizabeth O'Connor:
When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.
God is doing a new thing. What will it take for us to perceive it?

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